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Review of Zig-Zag-and-Swirl: Alfred W. Lawson's Quest for Greatness,


Zig- Zag-And-Swirl: Alfred W. Lawson's Quest for Greatness by Lyell D. Henry Jr., University of Iowa Press.

The first full-length study of 1930s cult leader Alfred W. Lawson, Zig-Zag-and-Swirl presents the colorful megalomaniac in all his absurd glory. During the Great Depression Lawson, along with Father Coughlin, Huey Long, and Francis Townsend, was one of a handful of radical rabble rousers whose speeches condemning the “evil financiers” filled stadiums and whose followers numbered in the hundreds of thousands.

But Lawson was far more than a rouser of Depression-weary rabble. Once he got a following with his economic program, Lawson went off the deep end and founded his own religion, the Church of Lawsonomy, headquartered in Detroit. Besides knowing how to save the country’s economy, Lawson suddenly claimed to know “the cause of sex,” the secrets of how the human body really operated, and the proper workings of the stars and planets. He taught that everything, down to atoms and electrons, was either male or female. And there was no such thing as energy or gravity: things moved because of a complex interaction between cosmic forces of suction and pressure. His wackiest notion was that tiny microscopic creatures called Menorgs (“mental organisms”) secretly directed our evolution. The book’s title refers to Lawson’s shall-we-say eccentric theory of physics.

Called by one of his business associates “the craziest man I ever knew,” Lawson had an ego that bordered on the psychotic. He always spoke of himself in the third person, referring to himself as “the Man of Destiny” or “the First Knowledgian.” One Lawson photograph bears the self- written caption: “There he stood, throughout the age of extreme falsity, like an immovable rock of righteousness.” Under pseudonyms he wrote several flattering biographies of himself, including Lawson: From Bootblack to Emancipator, which his followers hawked on the streets.

One of the most entertaining charlatans to come out of the Depression years, right up there with Roosevelt, Lawson is a guy well worth meeting. This book serves as the introduction.

--Thomas Wiloch